Random brawls in medieval London

A History of London Life by R J Mitchell and M D R Leys is a lost classic of London historical writing, dating from 1963. It takes the reader on an admirable journey through the history of the city at street level, looking at Londoners and their lives through the ages. You can find it on abebooks. I am indebted to friends who picked up a copy for me in upstate New York, a long way from home but couriered with great thought and care.

Passages feel like a forerunner to the way that Ackroyd and Sinclair seem to effortlessly pull out breathtakingly obscure documents of London history. One of the best examples of this is a passage taken from the Londoners’ Pasttimes chapter, detailing a thirteenth century scrap that evidently got well out of hand:

Teams of Londoners played games among themselves and also against the neighbouring suburbs; in the summer of 1222 a wrestling match with the youths of Westminster had a disastrous sequel. The city men won, and a return match was fixed for a week later, but this time the Steward of the Abbey armed the home side so that the Westminster men set about the Londoners and caused many casualties. The irate Londoners went home to gather strength and, ignoring the advice of the Mayor, rushed to Westminster and pulled down the Steward’s house. When the Abbot came to complain they seized his horses, beat his manservants and stoned him out of the city.

The Abbot in question, if the dates are right, is either William de Humez or Richard de Berkyng (of Barking), most likely the former as Richard did not take his position until October. The High Steward of Westminster Abbey today is a ceremonial position held since June by Tory peer Lord Luce.

And what of the over-exuberant boys of the City, and of Westminster? Well, chances are they weren’t roughed up by their wrestling, which seems to have been an exercise in endurance grappling rather than the Giant Haystacks kind of wrestling we may think of today. That might also explain why the Londoners had enough about them to pull someone’s house down after a bout.

It might be worth considering next time you stroll down the Strand that both parties – and the aggrieved Abbot – would have stomped their way down the same route which was then a little more than a rural track.

In 1222 John III Doukas Vatatzes was crowned Emperor of Byzantium, the European discovery of America was still over 200 years away and Henry III was King of England. And in a small, thriving city a bunch of blokes had a good old scrap which got quite out of hand.

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